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October 15, 2008

Playoff Diary

ALCS Game Three: Rays versus Red Sox

by David Laurila

A week ago, Christina began an article, "Forgive me a second, as I doff the analyst's cap." From there she went on to share her experiences at ALDS Game Three, Rays versus White Sox, from something of a fan's perspective. I'll do something similar, having attended Monday afternoon's ALCS Game Three at Fenway Park, not as a reporter, but as a paying customer (albeit one who brought along a digital voice recorder and notepad). Unlike Christina's fine bit, I'll spend relatively little time talking about the game itself, which was, to put it mildly, among the least compelling of this year's post-season affairs. Instead, using a diary format, I'll intersperse my own musings with quotes from people I interacted with at the ballpark.

2:40: I arrive at Fenway Park and am surprised to have my ticket ripped, rather than scanned, but for some reason I don't ask why. I attended numerous games as a fan this season, and this is the first time my entry isn't verified electronically. It seems somewhat... old-fashioned?

The first time I walked into a big league ballpark, old County Stadium in Milwaukee, was on August 6, 1975. The Red Sox were in town, and they scored four times in the top of ninth to beat the Brewers 5-2, the winning run coming courtesy of a pinch-hit single by the immortal Doug Griffin off the equally immortal Rick Austin. (Note: what did we ever do before Retrosheet?) George Scott hit the game's only home run, and it was the one time I had the pleasure of seeing Hank Aaron play. Jim Willoughby got the win, in relief of Jim Burton-two pitchers who would go on to figure prominently two months later, in Game Seven of the World Series.

2:45: My first stop is outside the visitor's clubhouse, where I touch base with the keeper of the gate, Jack Carroll. Jack is exactly what you want from a security guard: serious about his responsibilities, but helpful and always affable. He's one of the many good people who work behind the scenes at Fenway Park.

2:50: The Rays are on the field taking batting practice, and I randomly approach the first person I see wearing Rays attire.

Larry Cohen (Rays fan from Rye, New York): "I just took a liking to [the Rays]. They're a young, energetic team. I'm a Mets fan too, but I was always looking for an American League team to follow. My friends and I have gone down to Tampa the last couple of years, and we've seen them really developing. They've had a lot of number one picks, and have some good players, so I thought they were going to be good this year, once they fixed up their bullpen. They seem to have done that, and the young guys are really coming together. We're happy to be here [in the ALCS], but at this point, we want to go farther. We plan to keep going and be in Philly or Los Angeles for the World Series."

The first World Series game I have a real memory of was Tigers-Cardinals, Game Seven in 1968. I was in grade school, in Upper Michigan, and the teacher put the game on the radio in the final hour of the school day. I remember hearing Mike Shannon homer in the ninth inning for the Cardinals' only run while walking out to board the bus. The fact that a World Series game would be played on a weekday afternoon is, of course, testament to the changing of the times. It was a bygone era where the networks didn't run the show, and kids had an opportunity to enjoy post-season games rather than hear the results when they woke up the following morning. With a late-afternoon start to Monday's game, the number of young faces in Fenway Park far outnumbered what is seen for 8:30 p.m. starts. It is nice to see, and I believe that it has to be good for the game of baseball.

3:00: I approach a group of Rays fans standing near the visiting dugout, one of whom is wearing a Joe Maddon jersey. For good reason, as it turns out; I've happened across family members.

Christine (Joe Maddon's niece): "Even though it's quite intimidating to be a Rays fan at Fenway Park right now, I had to support him; I'm very proud of him. He's viewed by the players as a very cool guy, he relates to the young players a lot, and I think that's what makes him a very good manager for this group, this year. We had a news station from Tampa come over to us; they couldn't get over that we're wearing Rays jerseys. We haven't had too much of the bad attention yet, but I imagine we might if the Rays start pulling ahead."

Beanie (Joe Maddon's mother): "He's one of a kind. He sets off to do something, and he always accomplishes it. He sets his goals, he goes for them, and he seems to get there. We just talked to him, and he's still the same Joe. He's nice and calm."

The best Game Three I've been present at was in 1999, the much-anticipated Pedro-versus-Clemens matchup at Fenway Park. It was one of the liveliest crowds I've ever experienced, one that saw Clemens knocked out early in a 13-1 Red Sox win, John Valentin leading the way with five RBI. The following game featured the Chuck Knoblauch phantom tag, with umpire Tim Tschida referring to "Knobby" in the post-game press conference.

3:15: Joe McDonald (Red Sox beat writer, Providence Journal): "I have to tell you, David, it was very strange being down in Tampa [Bay] for the ALCS. We're not used to this. Around here, we're used to Yankees-Red Sox. But it's been a great series. One thing you have to like about the Rays is that they're such a young team, and they're really excited to be here. They played that way in Game Two, and they've just been a lot of fun to watch. And the Rays fans were fantastic, although I have to admit that they were a little fair-weather in the ninth inning of Game One; when Papelbon stepped on the mound, half the place emptied out. But the atmosphere down there was very interesting. It was unique, it was different than what we're used to. It's just been a fun experience, and a fun series to cover."

Another memorable Game Three I attended was the Yankees' 19-8 shellacking of the Red Sox in 2004. It was, of course, the game that preceded Boston's historic comeback in a season that forever changed what it means to be a Red Sox fan. While hordes of downcast fans streamed out of Fenway early that night, I was among those who stayed to the bitter end. Many of you reading this share that same credo: one does not leave the ballpark early because one's team is losing.

3:30: Bill Nowlin (Red Sox historian and author): "What comes to mind is, here we are, with the chance for a third World Series win in a five-year stretch. It reminds me-although I obviously didn't experience this myself-of when the Red Sox won the World Series in 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918. It's the concentration of opportunities. And it's kind of interesting, here in the ALCS, to reflect on how it could be the World Champion Tampa Bay Rays in a few weeks. I think that a lot of people feel that the American League champion will have a pretty decent chance to go on and repeat. There's no guarantee, though."

Wandering around the park, I encounter a number of friends. One is BP's own John Perrotto, who is in town covering the series. Another is former Indians and Red Sox minor leaguer Marc Deschenes, who spent 11 years in pro ball but never quite made it to The Show, stalling at the Triple-A level. There a lot of good people connected to the game of baseball, and John and Marc are among them.

4:00: My wife drops off our daughter, Katie, who will enjoy the game with her dad on her 12th birthday. It is her second post-season game, as we were at Fenway Park together for Game Three of the 2005 ALDS, a 5-3 White Sox win that completed a three-game sweep. Looking back at the Boston lineup that day-Damon, Renteria, Ortiz, Ramirez, Nixon, Mueller, Olerud, Mirabelli, Graffanino, Wakefield-there has been an almost complete turnover of the Red Sox roster since that time.

My daughter has attended at least one game at Fenway Park each year of her life. The most notable was on April 27, 2002, when Derek Lowe threw a no-hitter against Tampa Bay. Given that it's difficult to keep a five-year-old settled for a full game, we strategically arrived a few innings in, my theory being that I'd rather miss the beginning than leave early. A wise move as it turned out, and a special moment we will always be able to share.

4:20: Dwight Evans throws out the ceremonial first pitch, and as he does it occurs to me that had Evans been in right, Fernando Perez probably doesn't score the game-winning run on B.J. Upton's fly ball to short right field in Game Two. He probably doesn't even test Evans' arm, which was among the best, if not the best, in his era. It also occurs to me that the distance of Upton's fly ball was similar to the ball hit to left field in the ninth inning of Game Six of the 1975 World Series, when George Foster threw out Denny Doyle at the plate. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Fernando Perez is infinitely faster than Doyle, so no Fisk-like heroics were forthcoming.

4:30: We settle into our seats in section 40, which is the triangular area behind the Red Sox bullpen. They are seats that I share with my friend Tom, a season-ticket package that we've had for five years. Katie and I look around and make note of the player jerseys and t-shirts in the section, spotting three Pedroias, which makes him the most well-represented. We spot an Ellsbury a few rows down, which is what Katie is wearing. We also see a Schilling, Lester, Wakefield, Varitek, Bay, Papelbon, Lowell, Ramirez, Beckett, Ortiz, and a Youkilis. With nods to yesteryear, there is also a Jim Rice and a John Valentin.

4:35: I ask Katie who her favorite player is, and, as I anticipated, she says that it is Dustin Pedroia. She gives David Ortiz her runner-up slot, with Jacoby Ellsbury coming in at number three. I think back to whom my favorite players were when I was 12, and in no specific order I come up with Carl Yastrzemski, Ray Culp, and Sonny Siebert.

4:40: The game begins with Jon Lester retiring the side on four pitches, which has me writing down that I should check on how long it took to play the aforementioned Game Seven of the 1968 World Series. Doing so now, I find that it was a short and sweet 2:07.

5:12: Mark Kotsay doubles, swinging at the first pitch for the tenth time in 25 post-season plate appearances. Needless to say, Kotsay is not Kevin Youkilis.

5:15: Jason Varitek strikes out with runners on second and third and one out, eliciting catcalls from a fan a few rows behind me. This is the same fan who mercilessly dogged J.D. Drew the entirety of last season, loudly and endlessly calling him Nancy. [Warning: rant coming here] While understanding that the I-pay-my-money-and-have-a-right-to-boo mentality exists, I've never really understood it. The aforementioned fan is seemingly never happy unless he's complaining about the team he (theoretically) roots for. Last night I learned, per his exclamations, aimed toward whoever was in earshot, that Varitek can neither hit nor catch, Ortiz is a liability at the plate, J.D. Drew can't hit, Ellsbury can't hit, and the Red Sox are in big trouble in Game Four with Wakefield on the mound. This was all in the first five or six innings, as he is not an adherent of the one-does-not-leave-the-ballpark-early-because-one's-team-is-losing credo. I'm sure that clones of this fan exist in your favorite ballpark, and that his act is as tiring to you as it is to me. [Rant over]

5:55: Fenway Park is uncharacteristically quiet, and the sound of bat hitting ball on B.J. Upton's home-run swing is clear and precise from just over 400 feet away. It is a sweet sound; a blind person in the stands would have known Upton's ball was gone when he made contact.

6:05: Katie and I go into the concourse for Cokes and giant pretzels, where we run into our friends Stewart and Trudy O'Nan. Stewart bemoans Jon Lester's ineffectiveness, wondering when he might depart the game in favor of Paul Byrd. There is concern in his voice.

I don't jot down the time of Rocco Baldelli's eighth-inning three-run shot, nor Carlos Pena's solo in the ninth, but I'm happy for each player-Baldelli courageously battling mitochondrial myopoathy, and Pena being one of the classiest players in the game.

7:55: Victor Chiang (Red Sox fan): "I think it will still go six or seven games, at least I'm hoping. I think they're equally-matched teams, and you just have to hope that the Sox offense picks it up a little. I think they'll shuffle their lineup, hopefully. Maybe that will create a little bit of a spark. I'm not even sure if I know who Tampa's fourth starter is, but with a couple of timely hits, the game can swing. But at this point, I'm more hopeful than confident."

8:00: In a somewhat odd Fenway Park moment, the crowd stands up as one and cheers as Alex Cora awaits a 3-2 pitch with the bases empty and two out in the ninth inning of a 9-1 game. I don't know that I fully understand it, but it's kind of cool. A moment later the game is over, and a subdued crowd heads for the turnstiles, the Red Sox trailing the Rays two games to one.

8:05: Walking out of the ballpark, Katie says to me, "Even though we lost, I had fun. Thanks for bringing me." When you get right down to it, does anything matter more than that?

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